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What unites us... PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Wednesday, 06 April 2011 19:32

Riverside Church, Perth

Today I spent the day in the company of a group of clergy from across the Church of Scotland at Riverside Church in Perth in their excellent new church building. The purpose of the day was a follow-up "conversation" to one held at Carberry Tower last November, which sought to bring together clergy from many different theological perspectives and experiences to share a conversation particularly looking ahead to the debate that will be taking place at this year's General Assembly when the Special Commission reports on Same-Sex Relationships and Ministry.

The first of these conversations was rather tense, but did introduce us to a fascinating tool to assist conversation when meeting in a large group, the Samoan Circle, which proved effective in stimulating and encouraging people to listen to one another. Within a Samoan Circle there is a large outer ring of chairs and then a small inner ring of three or four chairs. Everyone sits on the outside unless they have something to say when they move to an inner chair and say their piece and can remain there for as long as they like. Folks on the outer ring are not permitted to speak, they must listen to the conversation that takes place in the inner circle and wait for an opportunity to take a seat to add their part to the conversation. [There's more...]

Today's smaller group did not need to resort to that technique, but listening was encouraged by the use of a "talking stick", in today's case a small wooden cross, which meant that only the person holding the totem could speak at that time. For a day when all we did was talk and listen in response to four questions, it was surprisingly tiring!

I am not going to rehearse what was said in the conversation as we promised confidentiality as one of the conditions before embarking on that conversation. But I would encourage you to think about the second question we looked at: "What unites us?"

There were many different responses amongst those gathered today, but I wonder what would you would say in response? What is it that unites brothers and sisters across the Church of Scotland?

The questions we considered after lunch were more focussed on the General Assembly 2011 and involved us looking forward 20 years and thinking back on what may happen at this year's Assembly. The question asked was how would we want to look back on the way we had handled the debate as we looked back on it. A difficult task when we do not know what the outcomes will be, but one that provided a lot of very thoughtful responses. It is something I have been thinking about a lot in terms not just of what faces the Church of Scotland but also about our own situation in Blantyre with the changes that will be coming to us. If we look ahead five, ten or twenty years how will we want to look back on how we handled the current discussions and also, what do we hope the church in Blantyre will look like at those points in the future?

The final question was a response to that issue of putting yourself in the future. Having talked about that, we were encouraged to come back to the present and reflect on how those future aspirations shape our present decisions and behaviour.

It was not the purpose of the day to come up with answers, but rather to converse with one another, to understand each other a bit better and to reflect on our own behaviour as we continue to talk with each other. This is all part of an initiative called "A Place for Hope" that seeks to encourage better ways of dealing with conflict within the church and communities. I enjoyed talking to the professional mediators who facilitated the day for us - a wealth of experience that it was good to explore if but briefly.

If I was to attempt to summarise some of the thoughts it probably sounds trite without having been present, but we were able to practise grace, humility, compassion, love and peace in our conversation, while recognising the challenges and difficulties. It was a good day, but today was only a small part in a process that needs to be taking place across the church.

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